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For Serbia’s Vučić, the big challenge comes after election day

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BELGRADE — There’s no suspense over who will win Serbian elections on Sunday — President Aleksandar Vučić will triumph once again. But one big question hangs over the Balkan country: Can Vučić stay on friendly terms with both Moscow and the EU following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Polling shows Vučić and his conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) dozens of percentage points ahead of their rivals as the country holds presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections on the same day.

Vučić has been the dominant political figure in Serbia for the past decade. During that time, he has been increasingly accused of autocratic rule, boosted by government-friendly mass media outlets and widespread cronyism.

But while his mastery of the domestic political scene is close to absolute, Vučić finds himself in an extremely uncomfortable position on the international stage due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Throughout his time in power, Vučić has maintained close ties with both the EU and Russia, shifting his loyalties between the two whenever he saw an opportunity to extract greater benefits and support for Serbia.

Now he’s under pressure to pick a side.

After initially staying silent on the Ukraine crisis, Belgrade ultimately backed a U.N. resolution condemning Vladimir Putin’s invasion but it has refused to join in Western sanctions against the Kremlin.

The EU has made clear that it expects membership candidates, such as Serbia, to follow its line on sanctions and foreign policy more generally.

How Vučić navigates this geopolitical landscape will be the defining challenge of his upcoming term.

Outsiders often mistake Belgrade’s close ties to Moscow as evidence of an enduring Russophilia among Serbia’s political class and wider society. But the truth is far more pragmatic: Serbia is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas, which it gets at a special low price. Ardent pro-Russians are a vocal minority who receive disproportionate media coverage.

This is reflected in a study released earlier this week by Belgrade-based polling agency Demostat.

Asked whether Serbia should side with Russia or the EU on the Ukraine crisis, 50 percent of respondents said the country should remain neutral, even if such a stance were to incur sanctions and goods shortages on a scale similar to those experienced during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Just 21 and 13 percent backed Russia or Europe respectively.

Demostat’s lead researcher, Srećko Mihailović, said this preference for neutrality reflects a deeply-rooted, long-term trend going back to Yugoslavia’s leadership of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War.

“The concept of neutrality and bloc non-alignment endures in the minds of Serbian citizens regardless of everything that has happened in the meantime,” said Mihailović. “A significant number have always backed neutrality regardless of the consequences.”

Some analysts have suggested that pro-Russia sentiment among the general population is largely the result of rabidly pro-Kremlin media coverage in government-friendly tabloids, TV stations and other media outlets.

If that is true, such sentiment could in theory be reduced if the government ordered its media channels to start sending a different message.

But whether Vučić would actually want to fully embrace the EU and the West remains very much an open question.

Brussels could test his willingness in a couple of ways — by offering Serbia greater incentives to progress in its long-running EU membership talks and by providing support to wean the country off of its energy dependency on Russia.

Earlier this month, the EU took steps on the latter front by offering Western Balkan states the opportunity to join its voluntary joint purchases of liquified natural gas.

On the political front, a more realistic prospect of EU membership would give Vučić a positive narrative to sell to his voters. And it could be a big win for the bloc if it locks a key country in its neighborhood into its camp.

“I think it’s in the interests of the EU to play things in a smart way and make sure that Serbia is anchored to the EU,” said Tena Prelec, a research associate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford who specializes in the Western Balkans.

“The carrots need to be bigger than the sticks, the positive messaging needs to come first and it needs to reach out to the Serbian population,” Prelec said.

However, Prelec added, the bloc also needed to be clear with would-be members that it will not turn a blind eye if they fail to meet key democratic standards.

“There also needs to be a signal that EU enlargement is there for those who comply and not for those who don’t — clear rewards and punishment — which we haven’t had for a long time,” Prelec said.

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